In Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 black comedy, The Trouble with Harry, in an idyllic small town nobody knows what to do with an inconvenient person (in that case, the trouble with Harry is that he's a corpse and everyone is convinced they were somehow involved in his death and don't know how to dispose of the body). Washington and the broader political world, especially online, can be like that too. There is a powerful inclination to rhetorically do away with inconvenient people, and tremendous anger from the enforcers of various versions of ethnic and ideological correctness against the heretics, schismatics and apostates who, it is assumed, should naturally belong to the ranks of the faithful. When someone from “the other side” is taking an objectionable position, that's fine because it only reinforces reassuring binaries, clichéd narratives and the certainty of the converted that the received wisdom is indeed the One True Faith. This is even more intense when it comes to ethnic (let's face it, tribal) expectations. And the intensity reaches its crescendo when it comes to anything remotely related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine is a fascinating case in point. He's an influential columnist and blogger with a strong ethnic Jewish perspective and a deep attachment to Israel. This makes him anathema to many Arab and Muslim Americans (I've been vilified for agreeing to be interviewed by, and later — horror of horrors — coauthoring an article with, him), and to many on the extreme left, including some ultraleft Jewish Americans. But he's also a strong critic of the occupation; the settlements (he has written sympathetically about settlement boycotts); Islamophobia (I'd note that his initial speculation that Islamists might have been involved in the Norway terrorist attacks was hardly out of bounds and bore no resemblance to the disgraceful ravings of Jennifer Rubin or John Podhoretz); paranoid TSA pseudo-security practices (about which he has written hilariously); and bigotry in general. This provokes the ire of a great deal of the extreme right, including the Jewish far-right. So the extremes on all sides dislike him a great deal, and they are disliking him more with every passing day.
The trouble with Jeffrey is that he thinks independently. He doesn't fit neatly into any simple category. As far as I can tell he is basically a liberal, but with some hawkish views (especially on some Israeli wars and Iran, that I strongly disagree with), and other ideas that don't fit well with a kind of dumbed-down knee-jerk liberalism. So conservatives don't like him because he's basically a liberal and liberals don't like him because he thinks critically enough to take plenty of "deviant" positions. He's keenly aware of and writes frequently about his Jewish identity and all matters Jewish-American. But he resists knee-jerk thinking here too, particularly on matters regarding settlements and the occupation, and is a powerful voice against Islamophobia. So anti-Semites don't like him because he's proudly Jewish, and Jewish absolutists don't like him because he strays from the reservation when he thinks it's important, either pragmatically or on principle, to do so.
Goldberg's willingness to take on Israeli orthodoxy over settlements and the occupation was recently played out on Twitter in an extraordinary exchange he had with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Goldberg harassed Ayalon remorselessly about an absurd YouTube video Ayalon produced and has been promoting. It is a remake of a settler video and essentially argues there is no occupation, so there are no settlements, and strongly implies the occupied territories belong to Israel anyway. On his blog, Goldberg correctly noted that the video "argues, in essence, the following: The West Bank belongs to Israel now and forever, so fuck off." On Twitter, Goldberg (@Goldberg3000) bluntly told Ayalon (@DannyAyalon), “Your entire project is designed to legitimize Israel’s hold over the territories forever.” When Ayalon accused him of engaging in “1984” tactics by drawing logically unavoidable conclusions about the deputy foreign minister's intentions from his own statements, Goldberg devastatingly replied, “You, of all people, invoking '1984'? Your government supported a bill that punishes free speech! Talk about Orwellian." Part of the exchange was catalogued and analyzed by Tablet.
For this blasphemy, Goldberg was subject to a mandatory ritual lapidation by the self-appointed Beth Din at Commentary magazine, delivered with tremendous wrath and furious anger by none other than the high priest himself, Jonathan Tobin. For Goldberg, he wrote "the mere mention of Jewish rights… is wrong." In Tobin's worldview, Goldberg is a heretic because, “To speak of the West Bank as disputed territory rather than 'occupied Arab land' is beyond the pale, because it hurts the feelings of the Palestinians and puts the two claims on a level playing field." Both Tobin and Ayalon are, of course, perfectly aware of the small mountain of UN Security Council resolutions, all voted for by the United States one might add, that clearly hold that East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights are occupied territories and Israel is the occupying power. But what are the small matters of international law and requirements of peace, or for that matter the rights of millions of Palestinians, when it comes to the metaphysical, transhistorical, divinely-ordained and indisputable Jewish “right” to all of “The Land of Israel”?
As I noted in a recent episode of Al Jazeera English's The Stream program that was largely based around the Ayalon video, anybody is entitled to their opinion about the occupied territories, but because the Security Council is the legal and political arbiter of such matters in the international community, we can state as a legal and political fact that these territories are occupied by Israel, end of story. In other words, you can have an opinion that the sky is green if you like. None of the rest of us are bound to take that remotely seriously, and we are perfectly entitled to laugh in your face when you say so or, as in this case, detect something more sinister in the deception. Tobin accuses Goldberg, in effect, of lying about supposed “Jewish rights” in the occupied territories in order to sustain, "the mainstream Jewish liberal conventional wisdom to which he subscribes." Presumably this is a reference to the outrageous heresy of belief in peace with the Palestinians.
The attacks on Goldberg from the far-right do not, of course, begin or end there. On his blog he reports recently receiving the following love letter: “Pamela Geller is right, you want to see America and Israel destroyed. Why do you love Muslims so much? Are you a secret Muslim?” In this case the motivation was not his opposition to the outrageous Ayalon video but his strong stance against Islamophobia (he was one of the strongest supporters of the rights of the backers of the Park 51 planned lower Manhattan Islamic Center, a.k.a. “the Ground Zero mosque”). And Goldberg has been one of the most persistent critics in the mainstream American media of Geller, Robert Spencer and other professional Islamophobes.
Much of the far-left also has a profound distaste for Goldberg, including the Jewish ultra-left. Max Blumenthal rather hilariously described him as the "Chief Rabbi of a one man island," although this metaphor makes no sense whatsoever. Neither does attacking someone one thinks is completely irrelevant, or as the analogy implies, has no audience at all. Some left wing critics acknowledge that he's not exactly without any audience, such as Joseph Dana, who recently referred to Goldberg as “the dark lord of American Zionist hasbara.” Well, if all of this is the work of Netanyahu's American “dark lord of propaganda,” the Israeli government's public diplomacy is in much worse shape than even I thought it was. Goldberg is also, needless to say, a favorite target of the oddball Mondoweiss website (as am I). The intellectual and moral character of that site can be simply gauged by the fact that its proprietors, Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, have seen fit to publish articles questioning the right of anyone to sit in judgment of Palestinians who commit drive-by shootings against random settlers, including pregnant women, implicitly defending, therefore, a fairly cold-blooded variety of murder.
Indeed, these attacks from fringes only makes sense, and only really occur, when there is a belief that the intended target has an audience and is genuinely influential. They are an acknowledgment that one is having an effect and an impact. And for the Guardians of Purity, those who think for themselves are especially dangerous. There is a vast amount, especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Goldberg and I disagree about passionately. But one thing is for sure: I never know exactly what to expect from him. And I doubt any of my readers know exactly what to expect from me either. Key perspectives become obvious over time, but people who think for themselves are likely to throw out curveballs on a regular basis, and this is the thing that the Guardians of Purity hate more than anything else: not inconsistency, but consistent independence of thinking.
In some cases it is the influence alone that I think accounts for the objections. I have several friends who are staunch liberals but not ultraleft, who are not Arabs or Jews, and who are not that heavily invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or anything around it, yet who have expressed a strong distaste for Goldberg which they have been unable to fully explain to me. As best I can understand it, there is a strong objection because they perceive him to be a kind of arbiter of Jewish liberal opinion in some sort of an unhealthy, hegemonic manner. It almost sounds something like the resentment Booker T. Washington used to face from those who thought all “respectable” African-American public opinion and major funding for community organizations needed to be approved by “the Wizard of Tuskegee.” I'm afraid I don't understand this. Maybe I'm just not close enough to the inner workings of the Jewish American community, but it seems to me a very heterogeneous bunch, and honestly I can't see that the Emperor Goldberg has a particularly vast dominion or endless brigades of lockstep followers. That he is influential is without question; all the more reason to be glad when he takes on Israeli extremists, including the deputy foreign minister, or Islamophobes, or what have you. But the unquestioned arbiter of a mass body of important opinion? Really? I have detected this resentment factor, but I haven't fully comprehended it.
It should be obvious that in spite of our many disagreements, I identify with Goldberg in this one respect: being the subject of campaigns of ideological and ethnic purity from the high priests of the True Faith on both extremes of the spectrum simultaneously. An amazing amount of balderdash was spewed out last week in a press release by the Zionist Organization of America about the American Task Force on Palestine in general and me personally, and it's only the most recent and noteworthy example of attacks on ATFP and/or me from the Jewish far-right. By the way, the vice-chairman of the ZOA recently wrote in the Jerusalem Post that Israel should annex all of the West Bank but provide neither votes nor citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there, which tells you pretty much exactly where they're coming from. And of course there are the daily love letters to me from the Arab extreme left, including more than one website largely devoted to praising my every statement and two twitter "parody" feeds that are, sadly, underwhelmingly unfunny. Not a week goes by that I'm not described online by somebody as a “terrorist,” a “jihadist,” or a “radical Islamist” on the one hand and a “traitor,” a “collaborator,” and an “Arab Zionist” on the other hand. It goes with the territory. Such are the perils of life in the political center, the rejection of dogma in favor of independent thinking, refusal to adhere to prefabricated formulae, resistance to the dictates of stage-managed rituals of ethnic solidarity, and the willingness to say what one actually thinks knowing full well these are the inevitable consequences.
As with all sustained and coordinated vitriolic attacks, I suppose one must take these things as a compliment, because they are certainly an acknowledgment that one is having a major impact, or at least is considered, by the self-appointed enforcers of ethnic and/or ideological purity, profoundly threatening. These communal comisars are, of course, stultifyingly predictable in their own thinking. Indeed, they are frozen in non-thought. The thing that alarms them the most is an independent thinker willing to take nuanced, balanced and, worst of all, unpredictable positions based on reason and principle rather than ethnic affiliation or prefabricated ideologies. So in the end, the trouble with Jeffrey (and the trouble with Hussein for that matter) is strongly analogous to the Trouble with Harry: what to do with an inconvenient, disconcerting, unsettling, and, ultimately, terrifying presence that disrupts the otherwise idyllic space of the pristine ideological imagination?